Emily is a former TYFPC member and current manager of CRC Regent Park Community Food Centre. We got a chance to catch up with her and ask her a few questions about her thoughts on how youth can strategically plan to enhance their chances of landing an oh-so-coveted job in the realm of good food. Our questions and her thoughts below.
1) Can you tell us about your background (educational, volunteer, professional) and how you got started working in/with food?
With my history of working in community gardening I’m often asked the curious question “So….what did you study?” In reality, my educational background has little to do with where I ended up professionally. I did my undergrad in Political Science at UBC, because I wanted to study something with clear real world applications. As I made my way through my degree, I found myself getting more and more disenchanted with my courses’ continual focus on horrible situations in global politics that seemed to have no solution besides “everything needs to just be completely different than how it is”. I know many people draw inspiration and motivation from the complex environmental and human rights challenges we face as a society, but for me, I only felt motivated to hide under a blanket with the lights turned off. I was looking for something tactile and practical, where individuals could become drivers of change in their communities and see how collaboration with their neighbours could really bear fruit.
Heavy-handed metaphors aside, I got into community gardening. I started volunteering a few hours a week at two different gardens in Vancouver, one well established and led by an amazing man called Ted Cathcart on the YWCA downtown and the other a startup, under-resourced project on Collingwood Neighbourhood House (a local community centre). I was able to bring things I learned at the YWCA to the newer garden and saw my offer of time and some simple garden techniques could really have an impact on the space. I began to learn more about the Neighbourhood House’s food programming, and volunteered to teach a breadmaking workshop there. At the same time, I began volunteering at a local farmers market as my interest in food security grew. The market and the Neighbourhood House were partners on a farmers market nutrition program, where participants in CNH’s food programs could access vouchers to make the cost of shopping at the market more accessible for people on fixed incomes. This project really caught my interest since, as much as I loved working at the market and the team I worked with there, I couldn’t help but notice that it wasn’t affordable for a vast swath of Vancouver’s residents. I applied for a manager job that opened up at one of the markets, and although I didn’t get it, the organizing team were kind enough to give me an assistant manager role which let me gain experience supervising other volunteers and supporting some of the administration of the nutrition program.
Six months later, when I moved back to Toronto, I started asking around about why we didn’t have a similar program here. I got connected up with a group of people from FoodShare, Toronto Farmers Markets and other groups who were asking the same question, and had an opportunity to present with them at the Bring Food Home conference that year. I was able to add this to my resume, so that when I applied to a job as a community garden coordinator at a small nonprofit called Toronto Green Community, I had a broad skill set and the confidence that I could do the job. So luckily – after eight months of unsuccessful job searching – they hired me! I share all this in long form to say that for me, volunteering, and evolving what I could offer to smaller, low-profile projects, was what helped me to become someone people wanted to pay to do things.
2) Briefly describe your current work and its impact?
Currently, I work at the CRC Regent Park Community Food Centre, a partnership between Community Food Centres Canada (which is taking the model of The Stop CFC nationwide) and the CRC, a community organization that has been working in Regent Park for fifty years. As the Manager of the Community Food Centre, I oversee five staff who coordinate community programs that bring people together to grow, cook, share, and advocate for good food in their community. This includes our drop-in community meals, which serve about 250 daily meals; our food skills program, which offers community kitchens and food demonstrations; our communal gardens, including a greenhouse and bake oven; and our advocacy program, which supports participants to connect with other supports such as housing and immigration services and to advocate for policy changes to increase access to good food in their community.
3) In what capacities have you participated in the Toronto Youth Food Policy Council?
I was a TYFPC member for two awesome years, from 2010 to 2012. I initially applied in the first round of 2010 and was turned down, so I worked on building up my skills to apply again later in the year. I was the head of the Research and Policy committee (now Education) and worked on website. I was also a part of the team that put together the first issue of Gathering, the youth food journal as a way to compile and share some of the great research people in and around the TYFPC were doing with a wider audience.
4) How has the TYFPC shaped your current interests and involvement in the food movement?
Joining the TYFPC when I did gave me a great opportunity to show up at events and feel like I had a reason to be there. It can be awkward going to things where everyone has job titles and business cards when you’re still learning and figuring out where you fit. It makes networking easier when you can talk about the work that you, and the other interesting people in the group are doing. It also helps you to meet the young people who will be the future leaders of the food movement, and to get to know the work they are doing and to meet the people they are working with. The TYFPC gave me a great opportunity to learn about broader food system issues than the ones I was experienced in through work and personal interest. We were able to have talks on Food Justice, Food and Mental Health, and other topics that helped me make connections I had never thought of before.
Probably most important of all, the TYFPC gave me a place to build practical job skills and the space to do so in a self-directed way. If I needed experience facilitating groups, I could do that. I wanted to try my hand at curriculum development, so we created a small group to develop a training on food policy. There are certain skills that can be challenging to develop through other, casual volunteer opportunities, but the benefit of TYFPC membership is a chance to build real skills and get thoughtful feedback from both your peers and the other young people participating in your programs or events.
5) How important is it to have the right amount of training, mentorship, and experience when pursuing a long-term career in the food sector?
Even though it’s only been about five years, the food world has changed substantially since I was looking for my first job. Credentialing has a much greater presence – when I first got hired, a degree in food security or was the exception rather than the rule. As someone who works and hires people for front line community work, I would strongly say that experience is much more important than formal “food security” related training. The wonderful thing about front line food security work is that the content is rather straightforward – people understand growing and preparing food fairly quickly. What I want to see is whether you can communicate that information to other people, that you can support participants to take on leadership roles, that you have experience working with vulnerable populations, honoring their expertise and building partnerships. In that way, the most important training I can think of is not around food-specific content but around real skills – conflict mediation, fundraising, program evaluation. Having some of those skills, combined with the hands-on community experience and an enthusiasm for food is the triple threat I’m looking for.
6) What are some of the lessons or take home messages you have for youth who wish to pursue research and employment in the food sector?
My first thing would be to volunteer somewhere small. There are many wonderful, large organizations out there, and they are good places to cut your teeth when you’re first figuring out if you even like gardening, or cooking or what have you. But once you have a sense of what, specifically, interests you at the moment, try to find a small group with a modest program where you can really take on a leadership role. Since gardening is my area of experience, that would mean looking for a small local community garden and offering to help with the coordination, rather than the planting. Or a school or community centre with a garden that is kind of struggling. Then commit. Make time in your schedule to go there weekly, and actually show up and take on progressive responsibility. Lots of people come in the door wanting to volunteer – few actually stick around long term. Committing to one project and showing you are devoted is the best way to get the hire level skills and good reference that make you a desirable candidate. Focus on getting skills from your volunteer experience, and use opportunities like those offered by the TYFPC to network, and to share the work you’re doing with other people.
If you’re more of a research and policy type, it can be harder, because people don’t usually let you walk in the door and do “volunteer policymaking” for them. So in that world, I can’t overstate the importance of choosing programs that offer you internship or placement opportunities. Not every internship will be able to hire you, but they provide that practical experience employers are looking for, and if you get a government internship, I understand knowing people is basically the only way to get in the door. So in summary, I guess my advice is that whenever possible DO the thing you are interested in rather than just LEARNING about it. And don’t give up – it takes everyone way longer than they think it should to get hired – you’ll get there!